Earth by Low Carbon PC Review

Apr 4, 2011 by

There are more companies who build and sell computers than any one person could possibly count. There are so many now that for a new company to even have a chance at succeeding in the market that they must have something unique that will truly separate them from all of their competitors. Like everyone, when I surf the web I’m inundated with advertisements. Most of these ads I don’t even notice, and of those that I do see, a large majority of them are forgotten immediately. One particular advertisement stuck out to me though. That ad was for a company called Low Carbon PC.

Low Carbon PC’s tag-line is “Stylish Eco-Friendly Mini PC Computers.” It was a phrase that stuck out to me, because I’d never heard all of those words put together. The reason I probably haven’t is because as far as I know, it’s never been done before. Rarely have I ever thought of stylish and eco-friendly in the same situation. For most, when they hear “eco-frendly” they immediately think of the Toyota Prius. There is nothing I find stylish about the Prius! So after checking out their product line I contacted the company to see if I could obtain some of the computers for review. They were generous enough to send me their entry level PC, the Earth, and their top-of-line model, the Fire.

Design

The first word in the Low Carbon PC motto is style. With that being the case, their products better live up to that expectation. It doesn’t take long to see that they clearly hit the nail on the head when shooting for a beautiful design. All four of the current models are small-form-factor PCs. They all follow the same design guidelines. They are small, square, silver boxes with rounded corners. the look is fairly minimalistic, and in my opinion, looks great! Of course style does come down to opinion, but I struggle to come up with anything to say that I don’t like about the overall design of the computers.

Specifications

The Earth is the entry-level model in the Low Carbon PC lineup. The 2.2”x8.6”x8.4” silver case comes packed with a 1.80GHz Dual Core Intel Atom 525 processor with NVidia Ion2 graphics. The base package with 2 GB of memory, a 320 GB hard drive, DVD combo drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium 32 bit will cost you $549. This is how my review machine came configured. It’s an entry-level PC, so the specs won’t blow your mind, but then again, you wouldn’t expect them to.

The motherboard has a wide array of features built-in. All of the ports are on the back of the machine which helps to keep the front clean and beautiful. Across the top of the rear of the box you’ll find four USB 2.0 ports (there are two more on the second row for a total of six.) There is also a built-in 802.11N wireless adapter. On the bottom row is the  power connection plug, an HDMI port, DVI, SP/DIF digital audio out, the two extra USB ports mentioned above, a 10/100/1000 network adapter, and ⅛ audio jacks for headphones and a microphone.

Usage

As you might expect from the DMZ, we reviewed the Earth as a home theater PC. HTPCs really need to do two things well: handle all of your media needs, and look great sitting by your television. We already discussed style. I think it looks great on its own, and fits right in with the other electronics on my television stand. So the real question is: how well does it work as a home theater PC? Simply put: quite well.

The Low Carbon PCs all come pre-loaded with Windows 7 which, of course, includes Windows Media Center. When it comes to watching live television on the Earth, or most small-form-factor PCs, you only really have two options for TV tuners. You can use external USB tuners, or networked tuners. The earth does not have an available PCI, or PCI-Express slot. For my review I used the network tuner sharing feature (still in beta) of the Ceton InfiniTV 4. As is to be expected the Earth handled the job of watching and recording HDTV without any issues. Although, because the Earth has an Atom processor about 20% of the CPU was utilized while watching live television. That’s not a huge number, but it does mean that you’re not going to be able to do a lot of other things on the computer while watching TV. The primary focus of a computer like this is media consumption though, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Watching DVDs and ripped HD movies used less than 5% of the CPU. The biggest use of the processor came while using Netflix Instant Streamng. Netflix uses Silverlight for it’s streaming video which produces great lookng video. Unfortunately Silverlight still doesn’t support hardware-accelerated video decoding, so all of the work needs to be handled by the computer’s processor. This caused the CPU to settle around 30-35% utilization while watching standard-definition content. As with most Atom/Ion combinations, the Earth wasn’t really able to keep up with Netflix HD content. One can hope that when Silverlight 5 is released later this year that Netflix will support it’s ability to provide hardware-accelerated video decoding. The Ion 2 video processor is more than powerful enough to handle the demand of HD video, even 1080p content. As mentioned earlier, the Earth barely batted an eye while watching a locally stored high-definition movie.

Video Conversion

I generally use my home theater PC for two purposes other than consuming media: converting videos, and scanning for commercials in recorded television files. To test video conversion I used the venerable Handbrake to convert a one hour HD television show using the “IPhone and IPod Touch” profile. Video conversion is highly dependent upon the CPU, so the process took a while to complete at about an hour and 45 minutes.

Commercial Scanning

Scanning for commercials is another great system test, because it stresses the processor and the file system. For the test I used ShowAnalyzer to scan the same one hour HD television show that I used in the video conversion test. The file was in the WTV format.

Eco-Friendly

If you’re going to name your company Low Carbon PC then you better be prepare to back-up the eco-friendly statement. When one thinks “eco-friendly” with regards to computers they typically think it just means that it consumes very little power. While that’s definitely a design goal of this company, it’s not the only aspect of these ‘green” computers. All of their computers are small form-factor PCs. This means they require less materials to produce, and “significantly less energy to transport than the average desktop computer.” The computer cases are also made of aluminum which is 100% recyclable, and it is less toxic than plastic. Of course being low-power can’t be forgotten about. So how much power does the Earth consume?

Power Consumption

To truly be a green computer it needs to consume the least amount of power possible while still remaining a powerful computer. For this review I took all of my power measurements using a Kill-a-watt. We primarily focused on using the Earth as a home theater PC, so we took power measurements while watching various types of video, and while the machine was at idle. While idling, which an HTPC often does, the Earth only consumed 24 watts of electricity. That is a pretty low number, and one we’re happy to see. Watching a locally stored HD movie only took 25 watts. This extremely low number, only one watt more than at idle, is due to a few reasons. The first reason being that the Ion2 graphics processor is built into the motherboard, so it uses far less power than a typical discrete video card. Because the movie was stored on the hard drive it also didn’t have to spin up the DVD drive. Finally, because the video processing was off-loaded to the Ion2 graphics processor, the CPU was only running at 3% usage, so it required very little power. When watching a DVD the power consumption only rose to 29 watts with the CPU running at 4%. Watching Netflix streaming content in standard definition took 30 watts while the CPU ran at 35% utilization. Watching live TV took 31 watts with 20% CPU utilization. Both Netflix and live TV required the use of the network adapter as I used a Ceton InfiniTV 4 with network sharing to watch live TV. If you were to use a TV tuner connected directly to the machine it would most likely use less power and and CPU.

Conclusion

If you’re shopping for an entry-level home theater PC that will give you all of the power you need, while consuming very little electricity, and looking great while doing it, then the Low Carbon PC Earth is a great option. The Earth looks fantastic near a television, and keeping all of the connection ports on the back of the device ensures that you won’t have ugly cables and adapters in the front of it for everyone to see them. That was one of our biggest complaints against the Dell Zino HD we reviewed last year. Having a small form-factor machine means you’re going to be using the USB ports, so the inclusion of six of them really comes in handy. Also, the way that the top four are laid out ensures that you’ll have little trouble utilizing them. The on-board Intel Atom CPU and Ion2 graphics processors do a great job handling almost any video that you might throw at them. Of course, as mentioned earlier, it still struggles with Netflix HD, but hopefully a Silverlight update later this year might resolve that. At $549 it’s not the cheapest Atom-based computer on the market, but it is gorgeous, and very well thought-out. If streaming Netflix HD and having bit-streaming HD audio support aren’t on your list of required features then the Low Carbon PC Earth should definitely be on your short-list of Atom-based HTPCs.

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